Interview with Kerry Brown – Professor’s view on HK (Published on ISSUE 30 – Hong Kong Independence)

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There are controversies on Hong Kong Independece in academics. Editors of Polymer are honoured to invite Kerry Brown as insightful interview. He has been working on First Secretary of British Embassy Beijing. Now he is the Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. It is not hard to find his commentaries about current issue on China in editorials on New York Times, the Guardian and SCMP. Please visit his personal website for more details.

1. From your understanding, what is Hong Kong being an independent country? The society has been discussing possible ways of having a referendum, either for arousing the agenda or seeking self-determination, what is your comment about it?

I would imagine it was highly, highly unlikely. Hong Kong independence was never even talked of during the very early stages of the UK China discussions on reversion of sovereignty in 1979-1984. It was never regarded as a third option by either the Chinese or British. For the current Beijing government, too, it would reverse their 65 year old dialogue of unity, and fundamentally undermine their legitimacy (in their own eyes at least). They feel they have already granted Hong Kong considerable autonomy under the One Country, Two Systems rubric. The only possible scenario where Hong Kong might go for independence would be if Beijing centralised government experienced a crisis and the country fell apart. While not impossible, that is at the moment extremely unlikely.

2. From your opinion, what are the justifications of Hong Kong being an independence? What can Hong Kong people learn from Ireland’s independence, and perhaps also the 2014 referendum in Scotland?

Hong Kong becoming independent would have to surmount formidable challenges. Firstly, it would need to convince the international community to support it. On the whole, appetite for the creation of small, semi-viable states has been very weak in recent years. In some ways, the world has too many countries, not too few. Kosovo and East Timor have proved that the path to independence is a politically and economically costly one. Singapore only gained independence through Malaysia rejection of it. In addition, the Hong Kongese would need to prove they are able to defend their security and diplomatic sustainability. The vast trade dependence on China would be hugely problematic here – it is already becoming an issue for Taiwan, which at least enjoys de facto independence from the People’s Republic, but whose economy is now so deeply integrated. Hong Kong would need to show that it has the internal political forces and institutions to make it a stable, cohesive actor – hard things to currently state in view of the city’s very brief history of having differing political parties and social and political groupings. Finally, the city is dependent on being a global finance hub. The path to independence would create huge uncertainty, which would undermine this, and risk destroying Hong Kong’s main asset. Northern Ireland and Scotland are not good examples. Neither in the end went for independence. They have been granted greater autonomy That might be the pragmatic direction for Hong Kong.

3. Hong Kong independence movement has been gradually emerged since 1997, from your understanding, why would it happen? Do you think the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1985 was a mistake? Or do you think China should be responsible about it?

Hong Kong people historically have had a different identity from those in the Peoiple’s Republic. So it is not surprising that identity politics now is so strong. Hong Kong people feel overwhelmed and sometimes threatened by the burgeoning influence of the Mainland. So in some senses the desire for independence amongst some operates on the emotional level – as the search for more difference and stronger local identity. The issue now is what Hong Kongese do with this, and how they defend the things they feel are necessary for their prosperity and sustainable cultural differentiation from elsewhere. These are tough challenges. The city has a very specific identity and remains very unique. Maintaining that is important.

4. If people from Hong Kong really wish to become independent, what do you think the first step will be or should be? Do you think they should ask the UK for help?

See above, The international community, short of a collapse of rule in Beijing, will not help. Their desire would be to see Hong Kong granted greater autonomy, but there would be no support for independence, for the reasons outlines above.

It is not hard to comprehend his pessimism and low confidence towards Hong Kong independence between his lines. This view is more or less similar to the counterparts of schloars. I have now started to ask myself : Here is the realpolitik. What should Hongkongers do ? Is asking greater autonomy really a pragmatic way for Hong Kong?




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